Woman standing on dock
Photo illustration: Jonathan Barkat
By now, at the age of 85, I've seen a lot, done a lot, amassed a pretty impressive array of facts, lived on three continents, and ridden out a no less impressive number of wars, including the unnamed one that, as I write, blazes on the borders of Israel, where I live. It is when tensions are greatest that I find myself, perhaps as a distraction, thinking not so much of the future—how it will be if and when peace comes to this part of the world—as of other times and other perils, and in particular of a narrow escape in an unexpected place: Cherbourg, France, late on a Sunday morning at the end of August 1939, the year the world began falling apart.

Odd that I still remember the way the French sky looked that day, cotton wool clouds in a pale blue expanse so unlike the relentless Middle Eastern blue to which I was accustomed. The waves didn't nestle against the shore as they did in Tel Aviv but dashed themselves furiously against it. There was something bracing in the air of Cherbourg that perfectly matched my excitement: Here I was, abroad, on my way to a new life, free of the restrictions of parents or school, finally on the verge of celebrating the 18th birthday that would transform me into an adult.

I remember, too, how confident I was of the way I looked: positively alluring, I thought, in the dazzlingly bright lipstick and very high heels I'd never worn in public before, puffing away at a cigarette with what I fervently believed was huge aplomb. All I needed to do was wait for the MS Batory to arrive, and within a few breezy days, mysterious and attractive, I would be in the United States.

I wasn't alone in the port of course; 15, perhaps 20, other travelers (I still thought of them as "grown-ups") also waited, their luggage piled up around them, all increasingly worried as the hours passed and the Batory failed to appear. Perhaps she would never come. After all, Cherbourg was a relatively unimportant stop for her; she docked there only a couple of times a year, and these weren't ordinary times, especially not for a Polish shipping line, even more especially since war in Europe seemed inevitable.

Nor was any official to be found to reassure or explain, maybe because it was a Sunday, or maybe the Gdynia America Line had simply forgotten about us. I kept busy practicing my insouciance, but most of the other travelers were Poles, men and women who had left families and jobs behind—mainly to attend the 1939 New York World's Fair—and now faced the terrifying possibility not only of not getting there but also of not being able to get home.

They began to throw out suggestions and develop complicated theories about what might have gone wrong. Could we have been abandoned—and if so, why? Had there been an accident on the high seas? Where could the ship possibly be?

The mood shifted from irritated impatience to frightful anxiety. Even I stopped pretending I was a starlet traveling incognito and started to wonder what would happen if indeed the Batory never showed up. I had a one-way ticket to New York, a passport, and a few dollars that would just suffice, my mother said, for tips. My father, who had seen me off earlier that day, was on his way to England, my mother and brother out of reach in Tel Aviv. In short, I was on my own for the first time and no longer so sure that I liked it.